When the daycare of N was closed, I was forced to become a full-time, work-from-home dad, taking charge of the well-being and enrichment of a just-learning-to-walk and babble one-and-a-half-year-old.
Who was still oblivious to the existence of viruses, politics, and the idea of time. For N, there was no concept of past, present, or future, no strategies in place, just the expansive and captivating Sea of Perception.
We would drift together from the time her mother, a medical practitioner, left the house for work after breakfast until she returned just before dinner, the frame of an N95 mask imprinted on her face.
At a time when it seemed to be both probable that the world was going to end and that we would manage to reduce the virus spread within six weeks, the college I was teaching at informed us that we would be returning to campus after the spring break.
I told my students the same, and tried to make the most of my time with N before capitalism would start up again.
I propelled her in our garden swing and pulled weeds while she trailed me with a small bucket. I drove her in a toy car around the vicinity, resembling an uninhabited film set, the skies above the nearby landing strip were absent of planes.
I towed her around town in a bicycle trailer, BART trains passing by in the sky, an abundance of empty automobiles.
I wheeled her in a stroller until she dozed off and eventually I could read student work or, more often, scroll through Twitter in an endless loop, asking myself if we had welcomed a baby into a disintegrating universe.
I was determined to keep N from watching television for her first 16 months of life, so to keep her entertained I was willing to try any activity that didn’t involve a screen. I wanted to shield her from the commercialism and worries that she would inevitably be exposed to soon enough.
By the third day of self-isolating with a toddler, I felt exhausted and desperate.
So I changed my parenting approach to include “age-appropriate educational television” in the hopes that something, anything, on PBS would keep my child occupied while I organized a virtual class or took a few moments to rest.
We settled in on the couch and found the remote in the crevices of the cushions. I was delighted to find a show from my own childhood available on-demand: “Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away…”
N was captivated. And… so was I? I recollected Sesame Street as a low-budget variety of short sketches on Oregon Public Broadcasting in the 1980s, the program my parents ran before and after school.
The crazy music stayed with me long after the TV was turned off, jangly melodies that fastened like adhesive until bedtime–and more often than not until the next episode. Lyrics so straightforward as to be basic.
I couldn’t tell you precisely when I outgrew the show and quit viewing it, just that I unknowingly retained all that I observed and listened to in the process.
Approximately thirty years since its debut, the program had returned for its fiftieth season with an amazing HD presentation and music that sounded as if it could have come straight from the radio.
With such remarkable detail such as individual strands of fur on the Muppets, it seemed that they had traversed through time from the internet-free ’80s to the wired world of spring 2020.
N and I watched a show together where a Muppet called Zoe was displaying the ballet routine she had been practicing. She twirled and leapt around the courtyard, and everyone was amazed.
Unfortunately, when she was performing her grand finale, she slipped on a banana peel, broke her arm, and was in a lot of pain.
N was transfixed by the display, feeling Zoe’s distress, and then began to cry. I switched off the television, thankful that she didn’t have the words to communicate to her mom what she had just been exposed to.
Feeling drained the following day, I decided to watch TV again and quickly skipped to the part where Zoe was in the courtyard with a new cast on her arm.
I warily looked on from a distance as Elmo and Abby Cadabby endeavored to make her feel included, changing the words of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” so that everyone shouted “Wahoo!” instead of clapping.
Seeing this, N had a huge smile on their face, and I felt a wave of relief.
I was probably just clinging to any tiny bit of good news in the midst of the news reports on the virus and press conferences about the COVID task force.
But it seemed like an omen: the only song my friend knew was playing on the TV, a link to the outside world in a moment when it felt like the external world was sealed off.
Gradually, we worked our way through the Sesame Street range. On the show, the “number of the day” was six. Away from the program, the figure of the day reflected the number of dead from COVID-19. On March 16, it was 23. On March 23, it was 121. On March 30, it was 650.
The nightly news reporters presented clips of quiet airports, unoccupied cityscapes, and hospitals filled with individuals on ventilators from the comfort of their own homes.
Our local play area was enclosed by yellow police tape to stop children from attempting to play on the apparatus. The ducks in the park turned out to be very hungry with no one to give them pieces of bread.
I was thankful that N was still small enough to be carried from A to B and that she hadn’t yet celebrated her second birthday, meaning that her earliest recollections had not yet been established.
This was beneficial, as I would not have to try and explain the state of the world to her when I could not even make sense of it for myself.
I already had a lot of misgivings about my parenting prior to the pandemic, and now I was worried that I had no way of conveying what was happening to my daughter.
Once I was done weeding the backyard, N was mobile enough to assist me. By the time we had planted tomatoes, she could utter the word tomato.
After a full cycle of Sesame Street, she was familiar with Elmo and Abby, and her ears would prick up when the theme song played.
One evening, while N was dreaming, my spouse and I decided to watch CNN and were surprised to find Elmo conversing with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Elmo noticed many people donning masks, but it isn’t October 31, so he wondered why they were wearing disguises.
Dr. Gupta commented to Elmo, “That isn’t a costume, you know…”
The letter “I” stands for the notion of influence. This concept has the capacity to shape and alter the lives of those it touches, making it an integral part of the human experience.
The power of influence can be used for both positive and negative ends, making it an important element to consider in many aspects of life.
At a 1961 gathering in the US capital, Newton N. Minow, the Federal Communications Commission chair, remarked that there had traditionally been three major influences in the life of a child: home, school, and church.
He then went on to add that now there was a fourth, which was managed by the people in attendance: the media. Although there were some good programs for children, Minow noted, they were overpowered by the abundance of cartoons, violence, and even more violence.
The years ahead would be influenced by the TV footage sent to over fifty million homes: napalm attacks, space journeys, caskets, demonstrations, murders, and an array of commercials and propaganda designed to contrast the free world and the communist menace.
Programs for children provided a method to advertise breakfast cereals, cigarettes, and toy guns. Kids woke up before their moms and dads and sat in front of the television before the transmission day had even started.
At the time, according to TV Guide editor Michael Davis (author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street), Joan Ganz Cooney, a TV executive at Channel Thirteen in New York, commented on the spread of commercial jingles across the nation:
“They’re singing commercials all over the country. Why can’t you teach them something else?”
Cooney was the one who brought together a group of people to think of methods to use their passion for educational gains: not the usual advertisement filled acts of Captain Kangaroo or Howdy Doody, nor the dull lessons in public educational television.
But an evocative, unforgettable show that would mentally and emotionally benefit children, especially the numerous African American and Hispanic youngsters living in poverty in cities that had been hit hard by civil unrest.
During the summer of 1966, Cooney journeyed across the U.S., conversing with scholars, instructors, and guardians about the potential of a novel method for children’s television programming.
It had recently been discovered that the intellectual capabilities of preschoolers had been largely ignored by educators. This oversight was highlighted in the fifty-six-page report, The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education, which was written by the same author.
The report argues that it is wrong to overlook the fact that emotional, physical, and intellectual needs of young children are closely intertwined from birth.
Cooney had gathered an elite team of educators and creative minds, branding it the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW). To help unlock the educational capabilities of television, they brought on two psychologists from Harvard, Edward Palmer and Gerald Lesser.
During the following year, Palmer conceptualized an experiment. He went to day care centers with low-income children and also to controlled laboratory settings to observe their reactions.
He arranged a TV next to a screen on which he displayed slides of children playing, Escher drawings, tall buildings and leaves in water.
His objective was to see which images would draw the children’s attention away from the TV and which TV programs would prevent them from looking at the cycle of pictures.
James Day, a public radio broadcaster, remembered that Palmer was able to create an attention profile for each episode by changing the slide every seven and a half seconds and analyzing where the eyes of the children were directed;
The profile was similar to the chart of stock-market prices in a volatile economy.
The Distractor Method revealed that youngsters had the capability to stay concentrated and remember facts optimally when given a duration of thirty to sixty seconds, which is coincidentally the same length as typical television ads.
In reaction, the Children’s Television Workshop adopted short, single, music-driven segments, transforming the visual vocabulary of capitalism into a semi-socialist instrument for the public’s benefit.
Every segment was punctuated by the advertisers’ concealed weapon since the start of radio, the jingle: “Oh, it would be great to be an Oscar Mayer Weiner”; “Rice-a-Roni: The San Francisco Treat!”; “Things are better with Coke!”
In order to assist kids with the basics of school, such as recognizing the alphabet and the ability to count to twenty, the show utilized catchy jingles. This was done to grab the attention of children and the melodies were designed to be reflective of the constantly changing world.
Cooney remembered that music was of great importance to the entire era. “In order to connect with inner-city youth, we must mirror what is happening around us,” they commented.
Jon Stone, the executive producer of the Children’s Television Workshop in 1969, previously a writer for Captain Kangaroo, was determined to create a show that would bring in both adults and children.
He remembered his friend Jim Henson who had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show with his puppet characters and had made a substantial income from commercials featuring the puppets. Stone managed to persuade Henson to join the project and to include his Muppet creatures.
Henson made a groundbreaking change by replacing the traditional stage with the television medium. This adjustment allowed puppets and people to be on the same plane and be able to experience the same emotional depth.
On one particular evening, Stone observed an advertisement condemning the disparity of US schools.
The video featured scenes from Harlem: water gushing from hydrants instead of proper swimming pools, children engaging in stickball in the streets rather than on a playground, and tenement beds rather than sleeping bags at summer camp.
The voiceover of the advertisement posed the question, “Do you not want your own children to spend their summer here? Then don’t expect children from less privileged backgrounds to.”
Years later, Stone remembered how a street provided an appropriate setting for the Muppets in his autobiography: “It was clear that a child in such an urban environment would find the action out on the streets.”
In the year 1969, the roads had an auditory presence.
The letter M stands for the beautiful and captivating sound of music. It is an exquisite melody that has the ability to transport us to another place or time and to evoke a range of emotions. No matter the genre, music has the power to touch our souls.
Joe Raposo, the child of a distinguished Brazilian Portuguese violinist, came to the cold town of Fall River, Massachusetts at the end of World War I, only having $1.50 and still wearing his sandals from Sao Miguel. His imaginative sound created the Sesame Street songbook.
Joe’s father was aware of the hardships of poverty, understanding that someone who could play a musical instrument would always have a way to provide food.
Consequently, as soon as young Joe was old enough to reach the piano keys, his father instructed him on how to sit properly, hold his arms and elbows, shape his hands, and spread his fingers.
When Joe wasn’t learning how to play, he was being taught to appreciate the sounds of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Richard Rodgers coming from the record player in their home across the street from St.
Vincent’s Church. Joe’s father showed him how written notes become audible notes, how notes become a melody, and how a melody eventually morphs into a song.
By the time he was seven, Joe had developed the ability to play classical Bach, the basics of the genre now deeply rooted in him: simple, slow, beautiful.
The Raposos would not risk sending their one and only child to a public institution, as Portuguese young men were likely to be targeted for bullying. Instead, they opted for their son, Joe, to attend classes at the St. Vincent’s Orphan’s Home just across the street.
On the first day of school, Joe arrived bearing a present from his dad: a handcrafted cardboard suitcase with his initials, J.R., on the cover. His peers were taken aback by the curly-haired kid with the luggage, so they ripped it from his possession and tossed it into the mud.
As school let out, the students from the orphanage returned there, while Joe returned to his practice room across the street.
Nick, Joe’s son, tells me nearly seventy years later that he was a solitary child.
Joe began playing the piano at five years old when he taught the violin students of his father. By the time he had reached eleven, he was sitting behind the organ at midnight Mass.
As a teenager, he was playing at the Santo Cristo Parish on Columbia Street, which was one of the biggest Catholic congregations in Fall River.
Not only did he perform at Lebanese weddings and bat mitzvahs at the Hebrew school, but he also found himself at Irish jig night at the Holy Rosary Band Society. Everywhere Joe went, if there was a piano in the room, there was an opportunity for him to bring joy to others.
Cardinal Medeiros, a close acquaintance of his dad, recognized Joe’s talent and offered to help him get into Harvard.
In 1953, Joe Raposo, who was from Fall River, was living at Harvard in a suite that had a grand piano. At his initial college bash, he didn’t have to pretend to understand the names that were being mentioned.
All he had to do was play the keys and sing, without having to talk and show his southern Massachusetts accent.
Joe, who was going by a pseudonym and had a cigarette in his mouth, posed as a higher-class individual and started creating original tracks for theatrical shows at the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, eventually getting to the point where he was the music conductor and director.
After lengthy nights at the piano bars in the Boston area, he would still make his way to his classes, playing until his hands were hurting.
At the Storyville jazz club in Cambridge, he had the opportunity to collaborate with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday and even opened for Duke Ellington’s band.
To keep his work-study grant, Joe had to clean the bathrooms, including the toilets that his buddies used.
Joe failed to meet the expectations at Harvard, yet his professors were swayed by his potential and provided him with a summer scholarship at the American Conservatory at the Fontainebleau School of Music in France.
Here, he was tutored by the renowned piano teacher Nadia Boulanger, a mentor to distinguished composers such as Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, and George Gershwin.
While at the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, Joe studied solfege and keyboard harmony, mastering cadence sheets in all keys. He honed his skills in counterpoint, harmonizing with a minor seventh chord on each degree. He even trained himself to reverse his hands.
Most importantly, Joe learned to listen and was urged to do so by his teacher: “Listen. What do you hear? No. Stop. What do you hear?”
Right after leaving Harvard, Joe married Sue Nordlund–a woman he had fallen for, much to his parents’ dismay–a partner who shared his interests in music, theater, and art galleries. The couple were sure to make a great life together. When Joe shut his eyes, he could almost see it.
And when he opened them, it was a reality: Joe and Sue were crossing the ocean on the majestic Queen Mary, heading off to France, where Madame Boulanger had invited him to learn composition in the City of Lights.
Mlle. Boulanger was a very serious person, often troubled by headaches and toothaches. Pain-free moments were treasured by her. According to her, “anyone who does something without being conscious of what they are doing is squandering their life.”
Joe Raposo had a special gift: faith. This faith made the difference between an adequate composition and a work of art. For two years, he would sit at the piano in the Mademoiselle’s Paris flat with her seated beside him, listening attentively.
She, then in her 70s and losing her sight, would call out any necessary key shifts as he played.
There were minor mistakes, slight semitone changes, and moments when the expression needed more–F minor, the second voice, E…F…G…the essence–until, at last, the inner voice was found.
The Mademoiselle welcomed Joe and Sue to her social circle which included composers, writers, painters, and vintners–the diverse group of people who lived through the war in Paris during the 1950s.
During the blackout nights, they would end the evenings in the couple’s second-floor rented apartment where they could see the city. In the early morning, they would rise and work on the tasks of the day on movable clefs.
When he decided to leave Paris and head to the States with his sights on Broadway, the Mademoiselle cautioned him that it would be a misuse of his gifts and prematurely end his life.
Your destiny will be similar to Gershwin’s!
In the winter of 1965, Joe and Sue had returned to Boston with their new baby boy, Joe Jr. They resided in an apartment in Somerville and Joe was working three jobs to feed his family, earning up to $250 a week in good weeks.
As he was looking for employment opportunities, Joe would state his title as “Conductor”, and he was offered to drive cars on the T.
When friends would come to visit, they would all gather in the room that was full of records, art books, and sheet music, and play until late night. Some of them would even fall asleep under the piano as Joe was playing and he would freshen up his drink between sets.
That summer, they eventually decided to move to New York City.
Jonathan Schwartz, a radio host, described Joe Raposo in his memoir All in Good Time as being “carnivorous, alcoholic, anecdotal, hyperbolic, ambitious” and stated that “he played the piano as well as anyone I had ever heard”.
Joe was able to find consistent employment as a session musician and, due to his exceptional improvisational skills, he was recruited to be part of the NBC house band.
This allowed him to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, which is where he first collaborated with Jim Henson and his Muppets. In the janitor’s closet offstage, Joe and Jim discussed music and made a commitment to work with each other again.
Joe’s talent for composing music was quickly becoming known. His old college friend, Jon Stone, got in touch with him in the hopes that he would be the perfect musical director for a show for children. The title wasn’t set in stone, but the need for the music was.
Initially, the producers desired Joe to copy radio music, such as “The Twist,” but he concluded the show required its own unique sound. He played the piano, and his pal Danny Epstein was talented with percussion.
They were still in need of guitar, bass, horns, and reeds. The show required a lot of songs, and Joe would remain with all the rights. He consumed and slept in the studio, and he wrote lyrics in the back of taxis, on the subway, and in the park with his son Joe Jr. and his newborn, Nico.
Epstein got Toots Thielemans to perform the show’s opening song, along with the Wee Willie Winter Singers, a group of young children. All the performers were paid by the hour like other professional musicians in the city.
Joe provided them with a single lead sheet containing the song’s entire arrangement and reminded them, “Don’t give up your daytime jobs. This is just an experiment.”
In May, N began to recognize the existence of a larger society outside of her family unit, which forced us to take caution in order to steer clear of it.
Glancing out the window, she noticed two little girls from the opposite side of the road giggling as they were suspended in a huge basket swing connected to a sycamore tree.
It was a blessing for them to have each other’s companionship when so many young ones had to amuse themselves alone.
Despite her shyness, N’s fascination with her neighbors’ games grew day by day, particularly when they coalesced with another family of four in the neighboring block and the two boys next door.
Soon, the street was filled with children merrily running and playing in the setting sun, indulging in hopscotch and paddling in a kiddie pool while their parents sipped hard seltzer in lawn chairs and beckoned everyone to join them.
Perhaps we’ll try again? Me and N had our own little world on Sesame Street, where Elmo sent bubbles flying into the camera at the start of every show, where no one had to avoid their neighbors, where there were no daily figures on coronavirus cases or presidential polls.
Adults were responsible and honest. When the TV was off, N had no one but me, no sibling, no Hooper’s Store or gathering of elders, but when it was on, she had Elmo’s World, la la la la, la la la, Elmo’s World.
Something new to explore each day, questions to ask Smartie the smartphone, a number of visual jokes to watch as I kept track of the virus information on my own phone, worrying if I was hurting her by not letting her be around other children.
I think my own longing to get away from the omnipresence of Zoom was likely behind my worries on the matter. I wanted to converse with other adults about the Trump administration, Dr. Fauci, and how life has changed without sports.
I just wanted to feel less isolated while parenting through the pandemic. However, it appears that N was perfectly happy being with me, Elmo, and our smelly dogs all day.
Whenever N seemed to be wondering longingly about what was beyond our bubble or if she was starting to become too accustomed to the screens,
I would turn her attention to a bottle of pink bubble solution that her adored tia had given her for Christmas, which she hadn’t seen since then.
I blew innumerable bubbles for N, which eventually filled our living room with iridescent globes and caused her to laugh uncontrollably.
My face grew blue from the effort, and soon I lost track of time and place – until the bubble-blowing bottle was completely empty. The tiny bubbles had made an entire world for a moment, and then erased it.
A year after the first episode of Sesame Street aired, Big Bird made an appearance on the November 23, 1970 issue of Time magazine. The cover was framed by a cheerful yellow banner that read: “Sesame Street: TV’s Gift to Children”.
In the words of Stefan Kanfer in a glowing review, “[ Sesame Street ] is as meticulously planned as a semester at medical school.” Therefore, it has received immense popularity from both affluent children and those from lower-income backgrounds.
The show’s strong dedication to diversity and inclusion led to criticism from white conservatives.
Such as the newly established Mississippi State Commission for Educational Television, who decided to ban the program, believing the state “was not ready” for a show with an integrated cast. They commented that Mississippi had “enough problems to face without creating more”.
As various movements for racial justice, women’s rights, and access for people with disabilities fought against traditional power structures.
Sesame Street featured bilingual songs and soul music, showcased working mothers and mothers who were breastfeeding, and introduced viewers to a child with Down syndrome and a librarian who used American Sign Language.
Joe Raposo’s original compositions on the first Sesame Street album from 1970 earned him a Grammy and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Reaching the number twenty-three spot on the Billboard charts and outselling the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson 5, and other hitmakers.
When the first royalty payments came in, Raposo’s flaunting of an eight-thousand-dollar check–which was more money than he’d ever seen–angered his colleagues at CTW who were of an upper-class background.
This began a constant influx of royalties that enabled Raposo to relocate his family to a terrace overlooking the Hudson River on Riverside Drive.
During the production process, Sue Raposo acclimated to the typical call that Joe would not be back for dinner with the children.
Working eighteen hours a day, he would compose hundreds of unique songs and thousands of scored moments each season, amounting to 130 hours of television in 1972. Not one second on the show was too insignificant for music, and Joe desired emotion in every single note and beat.
When penning a song about termites, he wanted the band to sense the same emotions. He printed the lead sheets in the smallest possible format, constantly reminding them to “think small!”
Bobby Crenshaw, a former bass player for the Duke who played in Sesame, recollected that Duke Ellington was aware they could “play anything he gave [them].”
The puppeteers put in extra hours. Jim Henson was devoted to making sure the cast nailed the performance and gave it their all, often taking up to forty takes.
He was aware that the music was what really made the show come alive, and that it would give the Muppet characters the same presence as the humans who interacted with them.
The teachers behind the scenes planned out the educational content, and it was Joe Raposo who added musical elements from different cultures, creating sophisticated, memorable tunes that could be enjoyed by both adults and children.
Joe received a summons from Washington, DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue in that year, asking him to lead the Sesame Street ensemble to the White House Christmas show, launching an annual convention.
As a child, Joe had spent much of his time looking out the window, and being an only child had left him feeling lonely, but whatever the cause, he had an extraordinary talent for giving everyday concepts–such as letters, numbers and colors–profoundly emotional qualities.
When Jon Stone jokingly asked him to compose “a song for the frog,” Joe took the request seriously and, in a single night, created “Bein’ Green.”
He and Jim Henson stayed up all night recording the song, Joe standing in front of him in the darkened studio, silently mouthing the words.
You often get overlooked
as you don’t stand out much
like a glimmering spark in the water
or a glittering star in the night sky …
The song had an essential quality to it, making Kermit – a character so cheerful and liked – seem to be an outsider looking in. Raposo had previously gained success with the Carpenters’ cover of “Sing,” yet “Bein’ Green” resonated even more profoundly.
It was also covered by Van Morrison, Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, although the Kermit version was truly iconic.
Joe’s phone kept incessantly ringing as the continuous influx of residuals continued.
Joe Raposo from Fall River was overwhelmed with the amount of money he had and he decided to follow the lead of his wealthier companions. His peers had houses located in the Catskills, so he bought a summer camp in the same area.
Since his friends weren’t smart with their money, Joe wasn’t either. Jim Henson splurged on a custom Kermit-green sports car, so Joe went to a dealership wanting to buy a Porsche in the same color before finally opting for a silver convertible.
Joe was rarely able to find free time, but when he did, he enjoyed creating models with Joe Jr. and Nico. Sue would take the kids to the studio or Sesame Street set to observe their dad while he was on the job.
Nick recounted to me, “We got a great deal of attention from my father, yet I don’t believe it was the quality time that parents think of today. If your dad is a shoemaker and you spend time with him in his shop, can you call it quality time?”
In 1975, Joe and Sue ended their relationship.
Nick recollected the early days of Sesame Street‘s success, saying, “My dad worked all the time. He wanted to buy a country house for himself and his friends from work to go to and hang out.
Afterwards, they’d return to New York and he’d be in the studio all day, every day. My mom wasn’t too keen on the bohemian living that was part of being with him.”
By then, Sesame Street had become a must-visit destination for a plethora of musical celebrities including Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Cher, and Lena Horne. No longer needing to call out for stars, it was the celebrities who were reaching out to the show.
Joe found himself at the end of his marriage and the dawn of a new level of fame, thus he left Sesame Street for Hollywood Boulevard.
In the summer of 1975, Joe Raposo made his way to Palm Springs, taking up residence in the pool house at Frank Sinatra’s place. Joe had composed a few songs for Sinatra’s new album, Ol ‘ Blue Eyes Is Back, and the crooner wanted to show his appreciation.
Thus, Joe stayed at the estate for a year while he wrote music, played billiards, and listened to records with Frank, occasionally sipping out of highball glasses until they decided to go to Lord Fletcher’s for some roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
On their excursions, they would stop for cocktails and then again on the way back. At times, they would return home to watch movies with old associates, lounge singers, or their companions.
Joe Raposo wanted the Children’s Television Workshop to remember him, even though Frank Sinatra Boulevard was a world apart from Sesame Street.
Cooney recalls getting a postcard from him that year–a bird’s-eye view of Sinatra’s mansion, with the pool house circled in blue ink: “my place.” The back of the card featured the full lyrics of “Bein’ Green” written by Joe, and he signed off with “Always your band leader.”
Christopher Cerf, a frequent contributor to Sesame Street and a close buddy of Raposo’s, recollected, “Once I received a phone call from Joe, out of nowhere. He exclaimed, ‘You’ll never guess where I am–in Frank Sinatra’s limousine!
He had just left the car and you were the first person I phoned.’ As it turns out, he called every single person in his contact list.”
Tales like this are often recounted by Joe’s oldest pals. The name-dropping. His monstrous ego. Perhaps he was unbearable. Or maybe he was simply intoxicated. Or maybe they simply didn’t comprehend it: How did a kid from Fall River end up in Frank Sinatra’s limo? Joe was disdained growing up in the 1940s and 1950s as a Portuguese immigrant in Massachusetts.
Everywhere he had been in his life- Harvard, Paris, New York- he had to smooth out his south Massachusetts accent to demonstrate his worth. Now Joe was fishing with Walter Cronkite; he composed campaign jingles for Jimmy Carter.
When Frank introduced Joe to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Nancy asked him to write a song for her campaign to encourage mature adults to become “foster grandparents” to kids with special needs.
Cerf recalled a lunch with Joe and his question, “What should I do when two of my friends are running for president?” with a serious tone. To which she replied, “Vote your conscience.”
As the catalog of the show increased, the music was released again, and bundled in Sesame Street Gold!, a double record that managed to retain its popularity.
Joe’s music had become an integral part of the childhood of many Americans, and his life had become a lot more complicated. He had to pay for the upkeep of his houses, alimony, boats, child support, cars, and private school tuition.
The songs he wrote were sent out, and royalty checks would come in. He was getting calls from all over the world, from New York, Hollywood, Las Vegas, and London.
The doctor requested that the patient come to visit them.
On the 26th of May, once N had gone off to sleep, I switched off Sesame Street and flopped down on the couch for an extended session of doom scrolling.
My Twitter feed was full of a video of a Caucasian police officer pressing his knee onto the throat of an African American man, which had been posted to Facebook in the early morning hours. I stared for as long as I could, but the cop never removed his knee.
In the weeks ahead, while the news continuously portrayed a chaotic world, I watched N successive seasons of Sesame Street. In Elmo’s World, the Muppet ball team was headed to a championship game. In reality, stores were being closed up and boarded in cities.
In Elmo’s World, Cookie Monster and Ginger drove their truck to a swamp to learn about cranberries. In the real world, police were using rubber bullets and clubs to enforce curfews. Elmo and Abby started a band.
Cars drove into groups of demonstrators. Elmo went camping. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security was sent to Portland, Oregon to take away protesters from the streets in unmarked vans.
Once N had been tucked in for the night, my spouse and I had a chance to take a break and relax, only to be confronted by the TV which was showing hours of debates regarding the talks that parents should have with their kids,
What white kids needed to understand about the U.S., and what African-American kids had been aware of forever.
I was thankful that N didn’t need to be aware of any of the tragic incidents yet, that it would be quite a while before she’d hear the names George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner or Michael Brown or Rodney King or Emmett Till;
I had enough time to formulate the right words to explain these matters, words that could elucidate why George Floyd was shouting for his mother, or how in the end, and from the start, we are all just kids.
In the 1980s, families had more single heads of household or two working parents than in the past and numerous children had the freedom to roam a TV landscape composed of home videos, Nintendo games, and MTV’s vivid hues when they were not in school.
Sesame Street kept their aim to create a show and sound that reflected the environment children were exposed to, even without their original music director, Joe.
Christopher Cerf was so prolific in writing songs for the show that he became the inspiration for the puppet Little Chrissy.
Cerf and his colleagues took advantage of the show’s talent for spoofing and created Muppet music videos that had the same introductory titles as seen on music television.
Bruce Stringbean sang “Barn in the USA.” A disgruntled Brit sang “(I Can’t Get No) Co-Operation.” Cookie Monster created his own version of Run-DMC and Aerosmith “Walk This Way” with “Healthy Food.”
Furthermore, an insect boy band performed “Hey Food” which brought a lawsuit from Apple Records owned by the Beatles. Eventually, Cerf settled the case for fifty dollars.
At the same time, Raposo and Henson were deeply involved in Hollywood.
Henson was generating Muppet movies for grown-ups and also working at the Creature Shop, which was renowned for creating remarkable films such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner was vigorously attempting to purchase the rights to the Muppets and the cast of Sesame Street for a large amount of money. However, Henson continuously declined the proposition:
He was willing to let go of the Muppets, but the Sesame Street characters did not belong to him to give away. They had to be preserved for children.
Henson was worried that, if taken over by a media corporation, the uniqueness and independence of Sesame Street would suffer.
This pledge was intensely tested by the sudden passing of Will Lee, the seventy-four-year-old performer who portrayed Mr. Hooper, the proprietor of the corner store that was a mainstay on the show.
Initially, Jon Stone and his co-producers thought about having another character take charge of the store.
Perhaps Mr. Hooper had to go away or retire? However, inventing a story would be contradictory to everything that Sesame Street strived to stand for: educating children about the world, and how to address their fears, anxieties, and disappointments.
The episode that occurred following the passing of Mr. Hooper is remembered as one of the most heartbreaking moments in television history.
After the Muppets and children were informed of the tragedy, the adults of Sesame Street gathered in the courtyard to reflect on their beloved friend. Big Bird then came in with a surprise: drawings he had made of all his adult friends.
He joyfully circled the table, handing out each portrait. The last drawing was of Mr. Hooper.
Realization dawns on the grown-ups that Big Bird, who has been written as a six-year-old, does not comprehend the concept of Mr. Hooper’s passing.
Big Bird, played by Caroll Spinney, inquires in disbelief, “He’s not returning? Who will make me my birdseed milkshakes? And who will tell me stories?” His sorrowful tone emphasizes the significance of the situation.
As a kid, I recall being moved by the scene of Big Bird’s sorrow. With hindsight, it’s even more heartbreaking to observe the faces of the adults, realizing there’s no way to console Big Bird and that the passing of the beloved Mr. Hooper cannot be undone.
Big Bird voiced his confusion, asking why the situation had to be this way and demanding a valid explanation. “I don’t comprehend,” he said. “Everything was just fine. Why does it have to be like this? Give me one good reason.”
Gordon responds, “This is the only way it can be… due to the fact that.”
Big Bird muses on the phrase, “Just because…” while the adults anxiously wait to see if this response will suffice for a six-year-old unfamiliar with sorrow. They hope that, for the present moment at least, “just because” will suffice in preventing further queries.
Upon arriving back in New York, Joe tied the knot with his new wife, Pat Collins, who was a TV talk show host, and focused once more on his ambition of writing musical theater. Soon, he started noticing tiny lumps in his underarm and groin area.
Pat suggested that he should go to get checked out by a specialist to be on the safe side. They both visited the doctor together.
Collins informed the reporter Michael Davis that when they were told the diagnosis was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, their first query was “What does that mean?” He added that the physician’s expression revealed that it was certainly not something they wanted to hear.
Joe was inquiring of the doctor, “Will I be around long enough to witness my unborn child’s high school or college graduation?”
You will not be doing that.
Will I witness him as he moves up to the first grade?
The physician informed Joe that this was a challenging circumstance.
So Joe decided that the only thing he could do was to make music. He was concerned that people would catch a whiff of his illness and that it could ruin his career. Joe adamantly stated, “I refuse to be looked at as a patient. That’s not happening.”
Joe and Pat kept their secrets to themselves, with only their business manager privy to the news.
They set up an account at a pharmacy close to Carnegie Hall, where Joe had a workplace, so he could get his medications without anyone in their area suspecting.
Subsequently, Joe worked in the shadows with swollen lymph nodes, labored breathing, and chills that kept him awake through the night. He arranged his chemotherapy sessions before the sun was up, on the East Side, in order to avoid a lot of people.
Steroids assisted in keeping him on his feet, while also helping him maintain his weight. If he was careful, no one had to find out.
It was 1986 when Sesame Street beckoned Joe back to the show, wanting to regain its distinctive Raposo sound – one that was vivid, impeccable, and just as diverse as real life. Joe, in turn, was desperate for the position, the laughter, and the medical benefits it entailed.
He worked as feverishly as ever, composing tunes about peanut butter, tree frogs, and the alphabet – with Kermit the Frog and Ladysmith Black Mambazo providing accompaniment._
Henson pulled Pat aside one day, not knowing that Joe was ill. He said, “There must be something terribly wrong with Joe. Please, tell me what is happening.”
Pat declared to Jim, “[I] adore [you], nevertheless, I don’t feel that it is obligatory to tell you [so].” Continuing, [s]he added, “[You] are right that he has some difficulties, but you will have to query him [about them].”
Henson declared that it was not possible.
Pat posed the question, “Do we have a stalemate here?” as she was uncertain of the situation.
Back then, buddies would visit Joe’s workspace at Carnegie Hall and discover him tinkling away at the keys, composing Sesame Street songs as he held a telephone to his ear and chatted away.
He was busy with business deals to settle and tracks to finish, not to mention pals who required his support. Despite the fact that his financial obligations included mortgages, tuition, alimony, and medical expenses, he still had a smile, a warm embrace, and a song just for his friends.
One particular day, Joe was so feeble he couldn’t make it to the shoot. His own offspring had no clue as to what was the cause. How was he supposed to explain the situation to them when he himself wasn’t even willing to admit it?
The mornings were much more appreciated now, for each breath. Joe was creating a show he considered his masterwork, an adaptation of Raggedy Ann for the stage, entitled Rag Dolly , inspired by Johnny Gruelle’s stories for children.
The music was light, but the story was a reflection of life, with a broken home, abuse, alcoholism and even suicide. When the performance debuted in Moscow, it was the first time the United States and Russia had cultural contact in more than decade.
The world was divided, but music was able to be the bridge.
In an interview with The New York Times in his Carnegie Hall office, Joe expressed that the Soviet population cares for their children in a similar fashion to how we do ours. His purpose in writing Rag Dolly was to see his youngest son, Andrew, graduate first grade.
He explained that the story is about “life, death and love” and that love is stronger than death. Joe was constantly playing the keys as he spoke to the reporter, as if he realized that each chord could be his last. He pondered, “What are children, if not hope?”
This phrase is meant to illustrate the importance of standing up for what we believe in. Protest is a powerful way of expressing our opposition to something and of making our voices heard. It is an act of solidarity, demonstrating our commitment to the causes we support.
It is also a reminder of the power of our collective voices.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, protests against police brutality began to surge, even reaching small, predominantly white towns in the outlying suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area.
From our backyard, N and I watched police helicopters fly over Walnut Creek, a city not used to civil unrest.
I wanted to take N with me to the protest, but I reminded myself that it wasn’t a wise decision to bring a baby in the midst of a pandemic. So, instead, I put on Sesame Street for us to watch.
In the afternoon while N was asleep, President Trump declared himself “your president of law and order” during a Rose Garden speech at the White House and called on states to “dominate the streets.”
Shortly after, the Walnut Creek Police Department K9 Unit set a German shepherd on a young Black man that was part of a group of middle and high schoolers attempting to shut down Interstate 680.
The SWAT team then hurled tear gas at the crowd of children, where fourteen-year-old Isaiah Sandoval stood with tears in his eyes, bellowing at them: “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
That evening, after I put my child to bed, while watching Sandoval on the news, my heart beat with optimism for the first time since the pandemic had begun.
Clearly, someone had demonstrated to Sandoval the concept of being mindful, understanding the contrast between right and wrong, and taking a stand for what is right.
Even without the words, I was confident I could show my child how to be courageous, how to help others, and how to reject an unbalanced and wounded world.
Sandoval yelled out, “We, the people, demand to be heard. Your job is to safeguard us!”
November 9, 1987 brought a cool evening and a full auditorium at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Joining the crowd was Joe Raposo, who reflected on the transition from St.
Vincent’s Harvard, his time spent with Mademoiselle Boulanger in Paris, and his experiences with Sesame Street. This was fifteen months prior to his passing due to cancer at the age of fifty-one.
Also present was Dr. Gerald Lesser, whose efforts were key in launching the Children’s Television Workshop.
Midway through the performance, Joe sat down at the piano and began to create a fresh melody. He put on his glasses, saying, “As one gets older, glasses are often needed to help make out the notes.” His son Nico watched from the audience.
The crowd leaned forward, chuckling as Joe let his emotions out. It was as if he never wanted to leave the stage, conversing with the youth and his son in the dimly lit auditorium.
He shared his experiences of how he taught himself to listen, perform and play a song that could be recalled by a child.
In 1973, Joe rang up his pal Danny Epstein to share a melody with him that he had composed. Joe exclaimed to Danny, “Listen to this,” and then proceeded to serenade him over the phone.
Let your voice be heard.
Sing with vigor and strength.
Focus on the positive, not the negative.
Look for joy, ignore sorrow.
Sing, sing a song.
Pick one that will stand the test of time.
Don’t be concerned about how it’s received
by others or judged.
Just belt out that tune.
_La la la la la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la la … _
Epstein stated that he did not believe the task was completed and requested to be contacted when it was finished.
At the end, everything was taken care of. In certain cases, singing la la la la la is all that’s required. When in doubt, just go with whatever emotion you’re feeling.
When Nick observed his father on stage at Harvard, he had a sensation he didn’t want to accept.
Joe declared to the Harvard students assembled in the auditorium that songs can be viewed as stories.
He went on to say that there is a message that the songwriter is trying to convey, and it is incredibly important to make sure that the story is shared in a way that the listener can understand.
Joe had difficulty conveying his deepest thoughts to his sons and daughter Elizabeth.
He was longing to share the secret that was buried deep within him, like a tight fist, anytime he sat at the piano, whenever he crafted a new melody, whenever he awoke in the middle of the night, parched. Hey, kids, wake up, I’ve got something to tell you. I won’t be around forever.
He kept beaming, crooning, and inhaling the adulation as if it were oxygen.
When people reminisce about Joe Raposo, they speak of his huge hugs. He’d embrace you with such enthusiasm that it seemed like he had no concept of timing or subtlety. He’d pull you in and hold you tight, and never give up.
Joe shouted into the blackness of the theater, “Nick? Please rise so that everyone can witness that the children of Sesame Street really do become adults.”
The letter “L” stands for listening – an important part of communication. Listening allows us to understand and interpret what is being said and can help us to better connect with one another. It is also a key component in learning and problem solving.
Taking the time to listen can help us to make more informed decisions and strengthen relationships.
Two distinct periods can be identified in Sesame Street music: pre- and post-Joe Raposo.
Christopher Cerf noted that the death of Joe Raposo had the greatest impact on the musical style of Sesame Street. He pointed out that Joe had the ability to write different genres of music, while still making it sound like it was played by the same band.
Cerf further added that no one else was able to do this, and eventually, no one even tried.
Those who believe Joe Raposo only composed music for children do not truly understand music or children. Joe’s songs were for everyone who ever gazed out of a window – songs that tapped into the range of human feelings, from cheerful to sorrowful, major to minor, ragtime to blues.
Joe thought everything was capable of being put to music: ducks, cookies, and clouds. All emotions could be expressed musically and brought to a satisfying conclusion. He was able to make the familiar seem fresh and the novel sound familiar.
From the moment a person is born to their last breath, life is intricate and the soundtracks should reflect that. Joe reminded his band not to condescend to children. He used to say, “Our audience is just small in size.”
At the start of the 1990s, Sesame Street felt the impacts of the untimely deaths of Joe Raposo and Jim Henson. As Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel began to take up more TV time, the show had to change with the times.
With video games and home videos becoming popular, the show adapted by introducing longer stories, and moving away from its original musical-variety show format.
When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting experienced a budget cut, the Children’s Television Workshop needed to rely more heavily on merchandising. 1996 saw one of their most popular products, Tickle Me Elmo, become the top children’s gift of the year.
The musicians invited on the show were those who had been raised with Sesame Street. On their visit to perform “Furry Happy Monsters”, R.E.M. stuck around for the whole day, helping with ideas for other scenes.
As Cerf put it, “we had the same level of appreciation for each other”. Johnny Cash, who had already graced the show in 1973, was back with his granddaughter this time.
On that fateful morning of September 11, 2001, the cast and crew traveled to the Sesame Street set to find the skies still clear, but the surrounding environment had taken a turn for the worse.
While shooting of the season was still ongoing and four episodes were yet to be finished, they watched the Twin Towers fall.
Producer Lewis Bernstein commented that even though they wanted to create a safe environment with Sesame Street, the reality of the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror that followed had to be addressed in a manner suitable for children’s development.
In the first episode after the occurrence of 9/11, a fire started in Hooper’s Store while Elmo was about to purchase something with Maria. This prompted the smoke alarm to activate.
Maria implored Elmo to hurry out the door and take cover, exclaiming “Go quickly and stay low!”
Elmo clings to Maria’s legs, quaking in fear, as the New York City Fire Department extinguishes the fire at Hooper’s. “Elmo never wants to go back in that store,” he declares.
Upon realizing Elmo, whose comprehension is similar to that of a three-year-old, is scared, a firefighter goes into detail about their protective equipment–boots, mask, and coat–which is all intended to guard them from the smoke and flames.
They extend an invitation to visit their station, and Elmo accepts.
He travels to a Harlem firehouse, which lost members during the 9/11 tragedy, and is able to take a ride on the fire truck, slide down the fire pole, and understand that no matter how out of control things become, adults will be there to make sure they are safe.
A few years later, the same attitude was maintained by the show at the start of the pandemic, when the lights of 123 Sesame Street were turned off.
Midseason, the writers, musicians, and puppeteers gathered their equipment and went home to stay safe with their own kids. It was impossible to predict when the students would go back to school.
CNN, part of Warner Bros., phoned the workshop with a suggestion. Could they do something unique for children? A town hall led by an individual that parents could rely on? And who would be more dependable than Sesame Street?
In the span of fourteen days, a whirlwind of production occurred.
As the Sesame Street and CNN staff organized their plans virtually through Zoom and conversed with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and others using WhatsApp to make sure that the forthcoming town hall would be suitable and based on science for young children.
Of course, there was a musical part with Dr. Gupta playing the accordion.
A videoconference, similar to the Zoom calls children had already grown used to for their classes, was employed for the town hall. Elmo and his pals–who were portrayed by puppeteers working from home–urged kids to remain apart from others and scrub their hands.
They said, “Let’s look after one another,” wearing masks as they spoke. This town hall became popular when the White House was berating individuals to return to the status quo.
In the wake of the George Floyd incident, and with the whole nation engaged in protests, Sesame Workshop–the contemporary version of the Children’s Television Workshop–realized they needed to do more.
According to Kay Wilson Stallings, a creative executive at the organization, “company wide, everyone said, ‘We’re not doing enough.’ We knew that to break down racism, we had to be very direct and open about it, not just model it as we have done since the very beginning.”
Van Jones and Erica Hill hosted a Saturday morning CNN town hall in June 2020, which was viewed by over 1.4 million households. On the show, Elmo’s father attempted to explain the difficult reality of racism by saying, “Not every street is like Sesame Street, Elmo.”
Bill Sherman, who was awarded a Tony for his work on In the Heights and Hamilton, is the current music director and shared his experience of creating music for the special The Power of We with me. He pondered, “How can I write a tune about racism for young kids?”
He and Hamilton alum Chris Jackson exchanged ideas over text, seeking to make it explicit but not aggressive, direct but not political.
Come September, when citizens of all opinions filled the streets of many cities, the show introduced a new Muppet of color, Tamir. Tamir taught Elmo and Abby that it is wrong to judge someone based on their skin color, and how to speak out against racism.
The three sang in unison: “You plus me makes the power of we…. Listen. Act. Unite.”
It was a Wednesday morning in September when the sun wouldn’t appear after a strange lightning storm. My family and the dogs were all still sleeping when we eventually opened the curtains to a sky of blood orange.
This was only the second summer for N, and she hadn’t encountered enough sky to comprehend the wildfire encroaching.
When we switched on the TV, a thick smoke had engulfed the western US. The authorities urged all to remain indoors. I changed the channel to Sesame Street in an attempt to return to our everyday routine, though the sky was still cloudy.
I prepared eggs while the ash drifted over N’s playthings in the backyard. I purchased an air filter on the web while the ash accumulated on N’s tomato plant. I couldn’t help but ponder if it had been naive of us to think that her youth would be comparable to ours.
When N was big enough to be tall enough to look out the window while standing on the couch, they would tap on the glass and exclaim, “I want to go out!”
I found myself unable to articulate precisely why the sky was not always blue in summer, why the water was not always clean, and why the smog was worsening.
I sought to convey my thoughts through song, to make things better. Keeping it succinct, I just said “We cannot go outside, the air is not healthy today”–hoping that was enough, as it was the truth, spoken from my father.
But how can you explain the reality of the situation to children when that reality is in a state of flux?
Recalling the episode’s conclusion, I remember Big Bird in his nest, respectfully displaying the portrait of the recently deceased Mister Hooper. Later, the adults come by, introducing the new addition to Sesame Street, little Leandro.
It may appear to be an overly hopeful conclusion for a tale about death; alternatively, it may appear to be the most logical ending:
The termination of one life, the start of another, similar to the cyclical nature of a drum or a trumpet, a century between one pandemic and the next, the expectant pause between one track and the commencement of another.
Big Bird, with a monk-like admiration, remarks, “Isn’t it wonderful how new babies suddenly appear one day?” He expresses his awe at the presence of baby Leandro.
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